Deans: Cornell Tech is redefining tech education

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Syl Kacapyr
Dan Huttenlocher
Lindsay France/University Photography
Dean Dan Huttenlocher gives an update about Cornell Tech to trustees in Statler Hall Oct. 25.

The goal of the nascent Cornell NYC Tech campus is a simple one: be the pre-eminent graduate school for digital disciplines in the information age, the campus’s founding dean, Dan Huttenlocher, said during an Oct. 25 “University Spotlights” campus talk on “Iteration and Innovation in the Cornell Tech curriculum.”

Huttenlocher and Cornell Tech associate dean Rajit Manohar spent an hour with trustees, alumni and others, peppered with questions about Cornell Tech’s approach to everything from pedagogy to how the faculty are situated (they don’t have offices). They brought the audience up to speed on students’ curricular experience and future plans.

In January, Cornell Tech, temporarily housed in space donated by Google, welcomed its first class of computer science M.Eng. students. More arrived in the fall.

“Our students have been amazing, but also amazingly flexible, in being part of a startup where we are really looking to redefine the nature of grad education in these tech-related disciplines,” Huttenlocher said.

This redefinition comes in many forms. Perhaps above all, an “entrepreneurial mindset” is needed for student success – not necessarily “running out and starting companies,” but basic risk-taking and creativity – the old “ask for forgiveness rather than permission,” Huttenlocher said.

The students, many from technical backgrounds, are pushed out of their comfort zones, too, he continued. For example, they are required to submit their work to public critiques and to develop their communication skills. For students who come to Cornell Tech from a business background, they must be as much attuned with the technical side of the degree requirements as with the business side, Huttenlocher said.

So far, Cornell Tech has hired 10 faculty members, all of whom are founders of various companies or nonprofits themselves. They all bring not only excellence in their academic backgrounds, but they are also innovators who bring the entrepreneurial mindset, as well as expertise, to their teaching, Huttenlocher said.

What are students up to these days? A lot, as evidenced by a loaded schedule Manohar flashed overhead. That includes a required Friday class called Entrepreneurial Life organized by Greg Pass, former Twitter CTO. The students interact with industry leaders, intellectual property experts and many others involved in tech fields. For example, Manohar said, the students visited a museum curator to learn about artifacts and design, both traditional and digital.

The students also work in teams with New York City-based technology companies on semester-long projects. Before they begin, they and the companies sign an agreement giving the students three options for any resulting intellectual property: It’s theirs, it’s the company’s or it’s in the public domain, Manohar said. This policy, hammered out over many months, is one of the many ways in which Cornell Tech is itself a startup.

By next fall, three degree programs will be offered by Cornell Tech, campus officials recently announced: the computer science M.Eng., a technology-focused MBA and a master’s degree in connective media. Only the connective media degree will be a dual degree offered by Cornell and Technion – Israel Institute of Technology through the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Technion-Cornell Innovation institute.

Plans are on schedule to move to Cornell Tech’s permanent home on Roosevelt Island by 2017; at that time there should be 30 or more faculty members hired and more than 300 students enrolled.

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